You’ve been hoaxed

'Trauma memoirs' like James Frey's A Million Little Pieces may be written as true stories - but a suffering author is not the same as an authentic one.

Guy Rundle

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From the age of five, Kathy O’Beirne was beaten and raped by her two older brothers. Later, she was placed in a series of brutal orphanages and psychiatric wards, before ending up in a home for wayward girls, where she was raped and gave birth at age thirteen.

Or did she? Is O’Beirne in fact a disturbed fantasist projecting imaginary traumas on to her own family life? (1) Though she has sold 350,000 copies of her personal memoir, Don’t Ever Tell, five of her eight immediate family members have made a public statement decrying the book as a fabrication. Whatever the truth of O’Beirne’s story, what’s certain is that the ‘memoir’ has become a problematic genre, giving rise to a seemingly endless stream of scandals. Don’t Ever Tell is simply the latest in a long series of books describing childhoods or traumas whose authenticity has been challenged.

Another spectacular example is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which sold more than three million copies after being recommended by Oprah Winfrey. Frey’s memoir of teenage wasting told a story of surviving multiple addictions, imprisonment, deaths of addict-friends and the like. After many of the claims in the book turned out to be wildly exaggerated or false, the author apologised for ‘betraying’ his readers.

Prior to Frey’s hoax, Benjamin Wilkomerski’s Holocaust-memoir Fragments had turned out to be a fabrication by a Swiss man who knew Auschwitz and Madjanek camps ‘only as a tourist’. Then there was Jordanian Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love, the story of how her best friend was murdered by her father for falling in love with a Christian. Contrary to the book’s claims, Khouri had only lived in Jordan as a young child. Australian author Helen Demidenko’s book The Hand That Signed The Paper was presented as a novel that drew on her family’s horrific experiences in Ukraine before and during the Second World War. However, she was actually called Helen Darville, and her family was from Scunthorpe, inconveniently pogrom-free. And on it goes.

What distinguishes all these efforts from earlier literary hoaxes is that they are alleged records of trauma undergone, presented as books that have been written under conditions of great stress and difficulty, as part of the author’s determination to tell the truth. In the case of a work like Khouri’s, it is allegedly done to avenge great wrongs – the honour killings of women in Muslim countries. In the case of writers like Frey, it is presented as the final step in a journey of redemption after a drug- and crime-addled life – the book becomes the process of integration and completion which gives the chaotic life of its author meaning and sense. In the case of O’Beirne – whatever the ultimate truth of her abuse claims – it is both these things at once.

So why did the authors in question not simply present their work as fiction? Well, they are all averagely written at best; Frey’s book is sprawling and repetitive; Khouri’s is clichéd. Wilkomerski’s does nothing that Primo Levi or George Perec did not do many times better. Indeed, some of the books – like Frey’s – were initially presented to publishers as novels. By turning them from fiction into memoir, all their defects suddenly become virtues. What was hitherto a sign of poor craft becomes a marker of authenticity, of a book ripped from the soul with such pain that there wasn’t time to give it shape or form or polish. By labelling it ‘memoir’, the publishers facilitate within the reader the imagination of a real and unmediated relationship with the author, which allows one to forget that the work is a mass-marketed product and to imagine that the author is talking ‘directly to me’.

Whereas the novel is self-contained – the author’s identity can be unknown – the memoir relies on an extra-textual guarantee of truthfulness, of bearing witness. Once done, the mass but individually isolated audience can share in the experience of growth, redemption and the path to wholeness with the writer. In fact, they can become a tiny part of that process just by buying the book.

In other words, it is all part of the process of public confession and emotionality, which has been discussed elsewhere on spiked. The tie-in with juggernauts of public emotionality such as the Oprah Winfrey Show and her book club are simply the logical next stage in the process. Having taken on the style of the novel – the literary form that, more than anything, is bound up in the creation of a certain type of individuality and privacy of response – the trauma memoir turns it on its head, offering the readership an experience of collective communion via the suffering of the author.

Such a willingness to prefer the shapeless ‘real’ of the memoir – and the risk that one has been conned – rather than the demands of the novel, represents something of a cultural step backwards. The novel emerged as an autonomous genre by the very process of using the form of other genres – Clarissa an alleged collection of letters, Robinson Crusoe a travel memoir – but it quickly distinguished itself as a form that mediates between the abstract and the concrete, the particular and the general. The novel sets itself the task of being something that is both other than life and other than a philosophical tract. It is an attempt to find order in existence, to identify those parts of it that are universal and those that are particular.

The memoir – or the memoir in which the author is unknown to the public prior to its publication – has come to occupy a central role in literature that was previously unimaginable. An overwhelming number of these memoirs deal with childhood or adolescent trauma and recovery, and appear in the wake of the ‘recovered memory’ movement of the 1990s. To a degree, they offer themselves to many readers as a sort of mirror of pain, a place to find one’s own trauma in the redemptive telling of another’s.

The literary novel, by contrast, addresses the reader as an autonomous adult, capable of both surrendering to the work’s imaginative world and intellectually debating its assertions, its process of world construction. Despite all the literary awards, the many novel extracts in newspapers, and the annual ‘it’s a knock-out’ style coverage of the Man Booker Prize, the trauma memoir has come to be the central literary experience of our time. The question is whether it can survive the continuing revelations of hoaxes that make it clear that the label is being used to sell shoddy semi-fiction.

The publishers of James Frey’s book resorted to a bizarre solution. After the threat of lawsuits, they offered a refund to any purchaser who provided proof of purchase and a sworn statement saying that their belief that the book was a memoir was integral to their purchase and enjoyment of it. Frey himself resorted to the worst, and visibly bogus, of therapeutic reasoning in his defence, arguing that the process of fabrication – whereby he became an exciting and tough drug addict, rather than a boring slacker drug abuser – had been part of the very process of self-deception that he needed to be healed from. He said that he ‘wanted the stories in the book to have the great tension that all stories require’.

If the hoaxers have irreparably damaged the trauma memoir, they may have done us all a favour. We could do with more good literature on its own terms, and less bad writing masquerading as true life stories for cheap effect. Sadly, while Frey et al may have been discredited, the genre is so in keeping with our therapeutic age that even scandals such as these may not be its death knell. The willingness of many readers to lap up such vicarious emotional spasms means that trauma-lit could be with us for some time to come.

Guy Rundle is European editor of the Australian magazine Arena.

(1) Author accused of literary fraud says: ‘I am not a liar. And I am not running any more’, Guardian 23 September 2006

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